Theo-theology 101


I’m not really an egg-head, but I want to start a new school of theology. At present on the American scene we are dominated by Covenant theology (Reformed Theology), Dispensational Theology and New Covenant Theology. Globally and in the past we’ve lived through Liberation Theology, Feminist Theology, Natural Theology – the list is endless. So why add one more? Just because I can? No sir. Because each one of these, from the most coherent, Biblical and sound, to the most ridiculous, insidious and dangerous – share one common trait: They do not start with “Theos” but with something else. And the something else is the defining factor – NOT, the “Theos”. Theology, must, if it is going to be thoroughly Biblical and sound, must start with God, not the grid through which we interpret God and His Word. Theo-Theology is what I am proposing.

Alright – I don’t want any crank notes about me goin’ off my rocker. I’m just kind of letting my brain burp theology. It may just be a jumbled mess, but by putting it down on paper, maybe I can see enough to move ahead, or to jettison this whole line of reasoning altogether. And who knows – if your sharp and witty insights are of help, either one of those ends may be reached all the sooner!


I want to start a new school of theology. At present on the American scene we are dominated by Covenant theology (Reformed Theology), Dispensational Theology and New Covenant Theology. Globally and in the past we’ve lived through Liberation Theology, Feminist Theology, Natural Theology – the list is endless. So why add one more? Just because I can? No sir. Because each one of these, from the most coherent, Biblical and sound, to the most ridiculous, insidious and dangerous – share one common trait: They do not start with “Theos” but with something else. And the something else is the defining factor – NOT, the “Theos”. Theology, must, if it is going to be thoroughly Biblical and sound, must start with God, not the grid through which we interpret God and His Word. Theo-Theology is what I am proposing.

Now obviously (to anyone who knows me that is) I do not have the brain power to actually formulate such an entire school of theological thought. I would like to mind you. But there just isn’t enough grey matter between these ole ears to make it happen. Not every place where there’s a will is there a way. But maybe – just maybe I can put the bug in the right person’s ear who CAN work it through.

So let me give you my premise.

Covenant Theology for instance uses the covenantal structures in Scripture as the interpretive grid through which they arrive at all Scriptural truth. Covenantal structures clearly (in most cases, some like myself reject the “Covenant of Works”) laid out in the Bible. Mind you, I am not arguing whether or not those structures are there or discernable. In most cases they are incontrovertibly present. My question is whether or not they ought to form the hermeneutical control given to them by many.

Dispensationalism follows a similar pattern. It sees 7 (especially in old school, hard core Dispyism) “dispensations” or eras wherein God dealt with mankind under some set of clarified and unique provisions. It then uses these eras (dispensations) as its hermeneutical control. There are clearly some form of “dispensations” in Scripture. It is even a Scriptural word. (4 times in the NT – oikonomia – “economy”) As is “covenant” and “new covenant”.

New Covenant Theology follows in kind, however shifting its interpretive grid to the provisions of New Covenant as stated in Jer. 31, Heb. 8, etc.; and carried out in Christ. The primary approach here is to read the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament. Kind of like reading a book in low light (Old Testament by itself) and then in the full blaze of the noon sun, with Christ now being the means whereby you see everything more clearly. To read the last chapter of the book, and then to go back and start at the beginning, reading the book with what you know now.

Now my problem with each of these is identical. Each begins not where the Bible itself does – with God Himself “in the beginning God”, but with the secondary consideration “created the heavens and the earth.” Mind you we need both, but God’s revelation begins with Himself, and what He does issues from who and what He is. In each of the systems above, we should rewrite Genesis 1:1 to read “The Heavens and the earth were created in the beginning, by God.” The creation isn’t the leading thought – God is. In beginning, God. God is brought before the mind before creation is. Creation is hot on His heals, but we are asked to think “God” before we are asked to think “Creation”. We are asked to think “God” before covenants or dispensations. True enough, man made in God’s image as a rational being has within him the innate knowledge of God. No question. But man isn’t asked to think “Himself” first either. He is asked to think “God”, and reason down to man as part of creation. And we are asked to do this before we are ever introduced to any idea of covenants, dispensations or anything else.

So let me try to put some practical wheels on this rickety cart. Because, as anyone with half a brain can tell, this little musing has a long way to go before it forms anything resembling good sense and a useful tool. If indeed it CAN come to that place. But let me try in advancing one thought: Let us begin our theology with God’s revelation about Himself, and let us use THAT revelation – the revelation of His divine perfections as the interpretive grid for Scripture. Everything God DOES (like making covenants) flows from who and what God IS. I must understand the covenants through the revelations of God’s perfections, attributes and character – not seek to understand God through the covenants first.

So my proposed school of Theo-theology rests in this one premise: Gather God’s revelations of Himself as considered in His being, and THEN go back to see what this God has done. Do not look at the clock to learn about the Clockmaker, there are certain things one can learn, but its backwards. Get to know the Clockmaker, and use that knowledge to interpret the purpose of the clock and its functions. Now things are in their right order.

How does one do this practically? How the heck do I know? I’m just beginning to think it out loud for discussion and meditation. But something tells me “In the beginning God” was more than a simple statement of fact, it is meant to be the lens through which everything else is understood. It is where the Bible – God’s self-revelation begins. And it is the revelation of God we are told – where everything finds its consummation. If my primary exposure to the Scripture is to find out how it reveals God, then the covenants and the dispensations and everything else will take their proper, subordinate place.

Remember – God would still be God even if He had made no covenants. He doesn’t need to covenant in order to be God. But the covenants need Him to be who and what He is – in order for them to mean anything. Start at the Head. And work down. Theo-theology 101.

All of our theology ought to make us to know more about God, and to know God Himself, than what God has done. I fear our current pursuits make us experts on His acts, whether we see Him or know Him or not. And that ain’t good. John 17:3 “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” I may know the covenants, and never know Him. But if I know Him, I’ll find out what I need to know about the covenants. Or the dispensations. Or maybe even why we have an appendix! Or why there are things like noseeums. And why when I turned 50, hair started growing out of my ears like fronds in the rain forest!


7 thoughts on “Theo-theology 101

  1. I look forward to reading your blogs because you always come up with some far out and interesting ideas, including this one!

    I went to a series of classes in the summer on the doctrine of GOD, (called “Getting to Know God Like You’ve Never Known Him Before”) during which the teacher went through the names by which God revealed Himself to mankind, from creation on through history. For example, it wasn’t until Moses met Him at the burning bush that He revealed Himself as “YaHWeH” (I Am) Why is that? What did this name reveal about God that He hadn’t revealed to man before that moment in time? And why didn’t He reveal Himself using this name until then? His names throughout the Scriptures sometimes revealed a new aspect of God’s character that wasn’t known or emphasized before that point in history. Perhaps a study of theology could be based on the names by which God revealed Himself to man (and the different aspects of His character as they were revealed through those names)….like Jehovah-jireh, Jehovan-nissi, Jehovah-rapha, and Jehovah-tsidkenu (my favorite because it sounds neat and teaches a great truth about God and salvation)…..culminating in the incarnation, resurrection, ascention of Christ (including the names Jesus even gave to Himself while on earth…the Way, the LIFE, the TRUTH, the DOOR, the Good Shepherd, etc.).

    I have even LESS gray matter between my ears, so I hesitate to share my thoughts, but it might be something to think about.

    P. S. I sure hope the hair growing from ears thing only happens to MEN when they reach 50!!!

  2. Thanks – it is fun to think a little outside the box at times. In this case, I really think it needs to be explored some. If I were to find a watch somehwere. I could say a couple of things about the maker with some certainty. I would know for instance that the watch itself was made for the purpose of keeping track of time. I might extraoplate something about the skill of the maker, their ability to secure certain grades of materials, maybe a few other things. But when it comes to WHY they made it – beyond the specific of being a time-keeping device, I am at a loss. Was it made to be a gift? A personal possession? Did it replace a former piece? Was it loved? Was it a prototype or the finished project? These things speak to inner issues which can only be known if I know the Maker himself. Motives and deep purposes are not avaialble through mere observation of the works he has done – no matter how finely I work at it. Personal knowledge alone will open that up. Now God has given us much of the personal knowledge in Hiw Word. He opens up many of His purposes. But the plan of redemption is not to be understood only in terms of what it does – it must be understood from the perspective of “why” does God want to do this? What is His motivation? This gets me knowing Him – above merely what He has done. And this is what I believe He is after. Theology ought to lead us first to God Himself – and then what He does finds its full purpose.

  3. Interesting stuff… I’ll throw this out there and see what you think. Covenant theology emphasizes covenants as God’s way of relating to man. It is “a bond sovereignly administered.” The emphasis is on the way that God relates to humanity, making solemn bonds (“cut” covenants in blood) between Himself and His people. You are talking (I think) about a hermeneutic that emphasizes first and foremost God revealing Himself, and secondarily how he relates to creation. A revelatory and not relational emphasis. This could not only fill in recognized gaps in the covenantal or dispensational structures, (i.e. “the formalizing term ‘covenant’ does not apear in the earlier narratives of Genesis. The biblical exegete should be concerned to determine the reason for this omission.” -The Christ of the Covenants, O. Palmer Robertson, p.18) but also function as a regulatory principle so that our understanding of how God speaks, acts, or relates to people is understood in light of WHO HE IS. Instead of creating a theology from how God relates to people through covenants then laying that theology across the corpus of Scripture, we create a theology of who God has revealed Himself to be and subject all other understanding to that knowledge.

    Sounds dangerous. Count me in.

  4. I have no interest in diminishing the role of God’s covenants, but I fear they have moved from their own context to becoming the context. This is not healthy. Since at least a part of God’s stated goal in creation is self-revelation – it only seems right that we pursue that revelation as the means to understanding the rest. C. S. Lewis said he believed in the Gospel the way he believed in the rising of the sun each day. Not because he can see the sun itself, as much as by the sun’s light, he can see everything else. By the revelation of God Himself, everything else is revealed. but if we only explore the revelation and not the Revelator, we will inevitably miss the goal.

    Bruce Waltke tells the sotry of when he was in Israel studying. He lived next door to a men who had trained to be a Rabbi. They would meet each day to study modern Hebrew – and when they would reach certain words in the Newspaper, his friend would say “Bruce, you ought to already know that word – its in the Bible.” Then, Waltke says, his friend would go one not to quote the verse where the word appeared, but the entire chapter each time. Later, in one sitting he chanted for two hours with Waltke checking the Biblical text and he never dropped a syllable. He later confessed he had memorized the entire Torah and could chant it from memory. Then Waltke mentions – the man was an atheist. Now he had given his life to studying the revelation in unimaginably fine detail – committing much of it to memory – but he had never met the Revelator. And the revelation was for nothing. This is my fear with the way we approach theology.

  5. So there is a big difference between knowing all ABOUT God, and KNOWING God! (I’d rather NOT know ALL there is to know about God, yet KNOW Him, than know all ABOUT Him and NOT know Him! Does that make sense?) The two are tied together, of course, for how can you KNOW anyone without knowing more ABOUT them? But we can study the Bible and even memorize it like the atheist did, without having a relationship with God…..kind of like knowing all about someone in history like Abraham Lincoln, for instance, without ever having met him personally. But how can this whole concept be brought into a different or new method of Bible study and preaching? (Isn’t that what you mean by hermeneutics?)

  6. I agree with your criticism of contemporary theology. I too have entertained the notion of constructing a new “school” of theology using the centrality of Christ and the Atonement as the focal point through which to understand all of scripture. One of the issues I have considered in addition is the inadequacy of the three available lapsarian perspectives to handle such a theology. I envision a theology that begins with the God’s determination to show forth His Glory through the work of Christ rather than beginning and ends with the Glory of God as central to a systematic theology as it is to God.

    21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26)

    6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2Corintians 4:6)

    Thanks for the opportunity to share my unqualified concerns.

    Joel Salisbury

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